A genteel Southern family stumbles after moving from one Tennessee city to another
A Summons to Memphis. By Peter Taylor. Vintage 224 pp., $14.95.
By Janice Harayda
Northerners tend to think of the South as more unified than it is. The former Confederate states may have similarities that reflect their legacy of slavery and defeat and their landscape and geography. But each city has its own character, and Dallas and Atlanta and New Orleans are as different as Detroit and Cleveland and Minneapolis.
Few novels show this better than Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis, which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for its haunting portrayal of the lasting effects of a well-born family’s move from one Tennessee city to another. The plot involves two middle-aged, unmarried sisters in Memphis who try to dragoon their younger brother into returning home from New York and helping them thwart their 81-year-old father’s impending remarriage.
But there is more to the story than whether their effort will succeed. Why is George Carver so determined, at his age, to remarry? Why have his daughters never wed? Why has their brother, Phillip, an editor and antique book collector, remained single, too? All of the answers relate to an incident that occurred during the Great Depression. Betrayed by a trusted adviser, George Carver suffered heavy financial losses and moved his brood from Nashville to Memphis – just over 200 miles but a distance that, for its disastrous effects, might have spanned a continent. The family chafed against unfamiliar roles and social codes, a clash between the old and new South, and lost its moorings.
Phillip Carver tells this story in a tone that is formal and restrained at times to the point of stiffness. This device reflects no lack of skill on the part of Taylor – one of the finest fiction writers of the late 20th century – but rather Phillip’s emotional reserve and detachment from life. The effect is chilling: A Summons to Memphis shows how an uprooting has reverberated over time and all but destroyed a clan that once was a model of Southern gentility. It shows, as Phillip puts it, how “the family in our sort of world and in our part of the country” had become so fragile “that even so slight a shift as from one Southern city to another” could destroy all that it needed to survive.
This is the fourth in a series of daily posts this week on Southern literature. Tomorrow, David C. Barnette’s tongue-in-cheek guide to unwritten Alabama social codes, How to Be a Mobilian.